Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Not Quite Ready for the Boneyard

In recent years, the Air Force has been in a mad scramble to retire the venerable U-2 spy plane.

Despite constant upgrades over its 50-year operational history--and impressive intelligence collection capabilities--the "Dragon Lady" was deemed ready for the Boneyard, clearing the way for the unmanned Global Hawk.

As the Air Force reasoned, the UAV could not only fly longer missions, it also eliminated the need for expensive "extras," including the extensive training and life-support system needed for U-2 pilots and their high-altitude missions. So, with an opportunity to save millions of dollars, with minimal impact on intelligence gathering, the USAF began planning for the U-2's retirement.

But, as Aviation Week reports, the projected phase-out of the U-2 keeps getting pushed back. Initially, the service hoped to start retiring the Dragon Lady in 2007, but that schedule was soon scrapped. Current plans call for retiring the U-2 in 2012, but that date may be slipped until 2014, and for rather obvious reasons. Despite its impressive endurance--and prospective cost-savings--the Global Hawk still can't match the U-2.

Regional commanders such as in the Pacific realm rely heavily on the U-2. Key advantages of the aircraft over the Global Hawk include higher altitude (above 70,000 feet) and more available onboard power to run a larger selection of intelligence-gathering sensors.

The U-2 can collect data from all seven of its available bands (versus the Global Hawk’s five) simultaneously. They include green, red, near infrared (visible), two shortwave infrared bands and a midwave infrared (which can be tuned to day or night collection). The seventh band is a redundant, midwave thermal infrared channel.

The shortwave bands collect images in the invisible reflected solar wavelengths and are most useful in detecting objects in adverse conditions such as haze, fog or smoke.

The latest variants of the decade-old U-2S (part of the U.S. fleet of 33 remaining Dragon Ladies) also carry the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS) 2A designed by Raytheon (originally for mapping) that’s so sensitive it can detect disturbed earth in areas where explosive devices and mines have been planted.


The Pentagon has said it will not retire the U-2 at least until the Global Hawk Block 30, which will carry the Advanced Signals Intelligence Payload, is flying. A USAF official said that flight could take place imminently. Another major milestone will be integration of the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program sensor onto the Global Hawk Block 40 next summer.

Still, the arrival of more advanced Global Hawks won't necessarily mean a short-term demise for the U-2. As one Air Force official told Aviation Week, "retiring a mainstay intelligence collector during wars that require vast amounts of sensor data" is unlikely.

In some respects, attempts to get rid of the U-2 are reminiscent of Air Force efforts to retire the A-10. More than 20 years ago, the service decided that the "Hog" was too slow to survive on modern battlefields, and began experimenting with a Close Air Support (CAS) version of the F-16.

The Viper CAS variant (dubbed the A-16) was part of a larger, inter service tug-of-war over roles and missions. The Army, banned from operating fixed-wing combat aircraft by the 1948 Key West Agreement, wanted the A-10 to complement its Apache attack helicopters. While the Air Force was never particularly enthused about the A-10, it wasn't willing to surrender hundreds of aircraft, thousands of pilot slots and millions in funding to the Army.

In the end, the USAF was forced to retain at least two A-10 wings, and there was never an order for the A-16. However, the service did equip 24 F-16s from the New York Air National Guard with a pod version of the A-10's 30mm cannon. Those aircraft deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, along with scores of A-10s.

While the Hawg compiled an impressive combat record, the F-16s with their pod-mounted 30mm cannon were considered a failure. As the New York guard pilots soon discovered, the center-line pylon wasn't as steady as the fixed nose mount of the A-10. Firing the gun shook the aircraft and made it difficult to control.

Additionally, the higher speed of the F-16 gave pilots less time to acquire the target and aim the gun accurately, further reducing its effectiveness. In the end, the pod-mounted 30mm cannon was used as an area weapon, but even that proved unsatisfactory. After only a couple of days in combat, the 30mm cannon pods were removed, and never used again.

As for the A-10, it is expected to remain in the Air Force inventory until at least 2028--and possibly longer. So far, no other aircraft has been able to fully replicate its capabilities--a lesson the USAF is learning again with the U-2.


Ed Rasimus said...

I'll defer gladly to expertise in intel, but must disagree considerably with the business regarding the A-10/F-16/CAS issue.

The A-10 is an essentially single-role aircraft--very good at that mission, but don't ask for air superiority, escort, SEAD, BAI, interdiction, intercept or nuclear capability out of the Hawg. When you don't have a permissive environment, armor oriented battlefield, you really don't have much work left for your A-10s.

Vipers on the other hand are multi-role and in most instances the airframe is more capable than the training of the particular unit's crews. Re-roling as the war progresses is very flexible. Lots of options.

Most importantly CAS has changed significantly. Stand-off precision guided munitions have largely eliminated the "whites-of-their-eyes" "troops-in-the-wires" need for snake-n-nape at low level. In other words, you don't need a lot of strafe capability and certainly not anything bigger than the 20mm Vulcan in most instances.

At least that's what this tactical aviator thinks. You've got the spook stuff, I'll take the fast-mover missions.

DWB said...

Would someone please tell me why the SR-71 (Blackbird) can't do what the U-2 does? Why was the SR-71 retired? I thought it was the replacement for the U-2.
The previous commentator has a minor problem, thich is commmon to many military types in command. No one has ever been able to forcast accurately what the next "war" will be like. Thus we need as many varied systems available as possible.

Ed Rasimus said...

dwb notes the inability to not predict the next war correctly. Which is exactly my point--if you can only buy a limited number of tactical jets, then the ones you buy must possess maximum flexibility.

A single function jet like the A-10 might be perfect in the anti-armor role and still reasonably effective but not as survivable in the CAS mission but that's where the utility of the Hog ends.

The last war syndrome was seldom more apparent than with the purchase of the A-10 which was designed as a replacement for the A-1 in the Vietnam permissive environment.

With the probability of that sort of conflict remote and mass armor ground war in Europe equally unlikely, a more flexible force is needed.

Unknown said...


I'll agree with you up to a point, having cut my teeth (as an intel officer) in F-16 units in TAC and PACAF. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Viper, and those who fly it.

True, the F-16 is probably the most flexible multi-role fighter in military history. We've asked it to do everything, and it has performed reasonably well at all assigned missions.

Obviously, the F-16 is not the CAS platform that the A-10 is; not the same SEAD platform as an F-4G; not the tac recce bird that we had with the RF-4C and not quite in the same ballpark as the F-15 as an interceptor (at least, until AMRAAM came along). But, with the right sensors, armament and trained pilots, the F-16 can do a reasonable job at these (and other) missions. And, in an era when new fighters run $40 million a unit (or more), we need more flexible platforms. The days of the single-mission fighter are now past.

However, I don't think the A-10's capabilities are quite as narrow as you describe. Along with its CAS mission, the Hog is also an excellent airborne FAC (filling the role once performed by the O-2 and OV-10). It is also ideal for the "Sandy" mission, the job once handled by the A-1.

Additionally, A-10s flew quite a few BAI missions during Desert Storm and Kosovo, sometimes as part of killbox ops. My old platform (ABCCC) worked these operations with more than a few A-10 units. You couldn't beat the Hog's loiter time, and between the gun, bombs, and Maverick, they packed quite a punch.

The caveat, of course, was the air defense environment. Against MANPADS and light AAA and older SAMs, the A-10 could hold its own. How it would fare against double-digit SAMs is another matter. Of course, we're not going to send any "non-stealth" manned platform into a dense AD environment without a prepatory SEAD campaign.

Ed Rasimus said...

Among my memberships is:

Society of Wild Weasels #2488. Flew SAM Hunter/Killer extensively in SEA with F-100F, F-105F and G, and even F-4C Weasels.

Didn't quite get the press of MiG-Killers, but satisfying work nevertheless.

Unknown said...


IMO, one of the biggest mistakes we ever made was getting rid of the F-4G. The F-16CJ HTS is NOT the equivalent of the APR-47(?) in the G-model, not to mention the fact that you had a trained EWO running the show in the F-4 Weasel.

There are plenty of B-model F-15s sitting in the Boneyard that could have been easily converted to the Weasel mission. Not to mention the EWO expertise that was lost (or relegated to staff work) with the demise of the F-4G.

Ed Rasimus said...

Many lament the loss of the "Geasel", but in the context of limited total system numbers and the trend toward stand-off air/ground weaponry, the production of a new generation (even using old airframes) Weasel can't be justified.

ARMs are longer range and more discriminating, targets aren't serviced from us close-in anymore, and realistically the need for sophisticated SAM SEAD is lower than other needs.

It's the same fight rationale as Gates v Mosely/USAF regarding buying F-22/35 or UAVs. Gates leans toward equippage for today, the USAF learned a long time ago that lead times are long and tomorrow's enemy must be anticipated.

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